by Joy Clark
You’ve seen her somewhere before, this female officer with her bleached hair and tree stump snarl. Maybe at the dentist’s, bending over a crate of soda on aisle five, slipping into the back at an Easter church service? So many of your childhood memories are stories you told yourself under the covers: I ran away from the orphanage, I was rescued from the orphanage by pirates, I have the orphanage stored inside me somewhere between lungs and liver. Your parents never liked these stories.
Your parents: Why can’t you ever daydream about nice things?
The female officer sifts through the items in your trunk as if she is looking for shells on a beach. Handful after handful, slipping between her fingers back into the night sky that is your trunk. You look up. Above you is the damp concrete of a parking garage, a horse head graffiti alongside the red-painted words ‘fuck them.’ How long has that been there, you wonder, how long have those words slept above you warding the death angel away from your flaky-skinned Corolla?
Now the officer has found your shells. The plaid underwear your sister bought you in secret when you were thirteen, the small tobacco pipe you stole from your cancerous uncle, a few bars of melted down crayon bits your mother poured into muffin tins when your dad said there was no money for stupid new crayons.
Female officer: You know it’s illegal to sleep here.
The exact same thing a manager at Kroger told you last week. You had your sunshades up in the windows, the metallic fabric protecting you against moonlight, streetlight, and prying eyes. Curled up in the backseat like a cat, nose pressed against your knees. You had just used a bit of your remaining $90 to buy microwavable ravioli with pull-off tabs that you would eat cold and gelatinous. It was piled along with instant coffee and a few jugs of water in your floor board. The manager at Kroger wrapped the roof of your car with his fist, a sound like hail. He said he’d call the police.
You drive deep into the wooded backcountry of Nacogdoches. County road after county road, each twisting farther back, a thread of them hopelessly tangled together. You find an abandoned trailer park, drive behind it, slip your way into the backseat and hug yourself close under a blanket.
When you wake, you think you can smell pine and wet earth. Somewhere through the trees you hear a man yelling at his dog or his wife or his child. The trees take the words, they protect you from the sharp obscenities, but the waves of his anger roll over you. You crank your car and leave.
You only ever sleep in your clothes now. You shower at the local college rec center, and you always take an extra shirt in the shower with you to scrub and scrub at the red dribble of ravioli down the front.
You know there has to be a way to make friends at school, a way to find someone to help you, protect you, or at least buy you a hot meal. They seem compassionate enough, these clean-faced girls in the hallway wearing gym shorts and t-shirts. Laughing, arms draped around one another. But they cannot know you; they cannot know you as you have known yourself.
What you want to say to the female officer: I’m sorry. I am going to get a job soon. Any day now. Somewhere that will hire me, do you know anywhere that will hire a girl with no high school diploma, no work experience, no connections? When I get a job I will find someone who needs a roommate. I will sleep on someone’s couch or air mattress. I will check craigslist every morning in the student center.
What you want the female officer to say back: I’m sorry too. For those scriptures you were taught at home, your so-called education. Sorry that your dad held a nail gun to your head when you wanted to leave, sorry that your mom said you should be discreet, chaste, a keeper at home, good, obedient to her own husband. You have a car, at least. You’re going places.
There are sirens in the distance as she closes the trunk. She doesn’t comment on the blankets, the emergency first aid kit, the cans of food. The drugs that she was hoping to find are blank shells: you have nothing more than a tube of Neosporin.
Female officer: It is legal to nap almost anywhere. Say, if you’re taking a long road trip. And you just need an hour or two of shut eye.
You: It’s been a long trip.
Female officer: I expect you to be out of here by dawn.
You watch her as she climbs back into her patrol car. She seems tired, drives out slowly, a longboat with no wind in the sails. You catch a glimpse of your own reflection in the glass. Greasy hair, grey eyes, an earthbound bird nesting. I think I’ve seen you somewhere before, you tell yourself. The lights of the parking garage beam like eyes: proud, supportive, distant.
– Joy Clark is currently pursuing her B.F.A. in Creative Writing at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas. She has been published in HUMID, the undergraduate literary magazine of her school, and she currently serves as a Fiction Editor on HUMID’s staff.